So what difference will the 2016 New Urban Agenda make when the world has had enough of experts?

Planet Earth under constructionThe UK Economic and Social Research Council Urban Transformations (UT) programme this morning held an event at Habitat III asking how this grand global conference in Quito – involving 40,000 delegates, mayors and city managers – might make a difference to the billions of people who will live in the most challenging cities of the world in the next 100 years.

The UT network is supporting several research projects in Quito and organised an official HABITAT III Side Event, titled “Transforming research into practices and policies – dialogues on implementation and evaluation of the new urban agenda.”

Our session brought together local authorities, community leaders and researchers from Brazil, South Africa and the United Kingdom. It addressed how comparative research findings and methods in the planning process can facilitate the implementation and monitoring of the 2030 urban agenda. The dialogue considered how to operationalize city ‘expertise’, how to research better and intervene with regards to city futures, and how a better-futures-oriented approach compels us to revise how research and policy interplay.

Four themes emerged from the discussion:

  1. That we need to understand the ‘pedigree’ of the research expertise that shapes cities.
  2. That researchers need a particular expertise to bridge the worlds of city institutions, city managers need the imagination and courage to be challenged by research.
  3. That cities have geometries of international networks and internal configurations of knowledge and expertise, forms of expertise found frequently in the most marginalised or precarious communities.
  4. That the horizons of the future are uneven, but that the New Urban Agenda cannot project only into a future of decades. It demands real-time knowledge, short-term achievements and longer-term goals.

The pedigree of expertise

Participants recognised the value of specific bodies of science and knowledge but felt that cities needed to be cautious about how such expertise is used in shaping grand plans and city futures. Vanesa Castan-Broto stressed that, “there cannot be research without a normative approach, there are people that are called experts because they are marked by their institutions”. She invoked the Argentinian theorist Silvio Funtowicz to suggest that we should be clear about such ‘pedigrees’, especially when thinking about how research expertise is performed in cities.

Newly elected President of United Cities and Local Government (UCLG) and former Mayor of Johannesburg Cllr Parks Tau highlighted the work of the Gauteng City-Region Observatory as one model of a city lab that occupies the precarious and productive ground of both challenging and informing city government.

Bridging worlds

All speakers stressed the imperative for embedded research to cross worlds of knowledge, translating ideas but also thinking through processes of research from design to completion, the pattern of city decision-making and the ability to learn from research. Cathy McIlwaine stressed that “as a researcher it is essential to get collaboration with local government in place at the beginning of the project” and that the New Urban Agenda appeared at times tokenistic in recognising “the deeply gendered nature of all dimensions of city life”. Ramin Keivani stressed the need to be smart about the realities of the local politics of the city to communicate and design research. Gabrielle Guimarães, Head of Planning and International Cooperation in Rio de Janeiro, recognised that in the municipality of Rio that too often “when we begin to work in partnership we discover research that is already done but unknown”.

Geometries of knowledge production

Theory travels increasingly from global south to global north but also needs to recognise uneven pattern of power and knowledge in the cities themselves. The geometrical configuration of knowledges in the city, of the city and between cities is important. ‘Seeing like a city’ for Sophie Hadfield-Hill should be about making visible local knowledges of NGOs and communities alongside the logics of city governance.


Reconciling the demands of the present and the vision of the future can be hard, but trying to reconcile short term needs and long term sustainability can be productive. Parks Tau suggested that the trade offs between short term and long term demands and relationships between city researchers and city mangers are “non linear” generating both complexity but also at times productive engagements when trust relations are strong and communities engaged. Beth Chitekwe-Biti from Slum Dwellers International suggested that “planning is always futuristic” by its very nature. For her this is where the problem lies. Consequently we must manage time horizons, reconcile the realities of today with the visions of tomorrow. Researchers need to bridge these temporalities; “valid information for the planning of cities has to be real time!

Background Information

Panellists included:

  • Beth Chitekwe-Biti – Representative from Slum Dwellers International
  • Cllr Parks Tau – Former Mayor of Johannesburg, President, United Cities and Local Governments
  • Gabrielle Guimarães (Senior Adviser for Multilateral Cooperation – Rio de Janeiro City Hall)
  • Vanesa Castán Broto – Senior Lecturer at the Development Planning Unit at UCL and Principal Investigator of UT-ESRC project Mapping Urban Energy Landscapes (MUEL) in the Global South– speaking on environment.
  • Cathy McIlwaine – Professor of Geography at Queen Mary University of London and Principal Investigator of the UT-ESRC project Healthy, Secure and Gender Just Cities: Transnational Perspectives on Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) in Rio de Janeiro and London – speaking on gender.
  • Ramin Keivani – Professor of International Land Policy and Urban Development at Oxford Brookes and researcher on the UT-ESRC project Brazil – UK Health Urban Mobility – speaking on housing and mobility.
  • Sophie Hadfield-Hill: Lecturer, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham; Principal Investigator of the New Urbanism in India: Urban Living, Sustainability and Everyday Life project.
  • Michael Keith – Director of COMPAS, Co-ordinator of Urban Transformations (The ESRC portfolio of investments and research on cities), and Co-Director of the University of Oxford Future of Cities programme.

In total, ESRC-UT will be an official partner in twelve other HABITAT III official events, panels, and pavilions, and four HABITAT III partner events, with over eleven ESRC-UT affiliated scholars playing significant roles in defining innumerable components of the New Urban Agenda.

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